(c) Jack Ballard
For sheer relaxation, few activities in life match wading up a secluded trout stream, rod in hand, casting at will toward undercut banks or deep, yawning pools. In the heat of midsummer, in a creek with a sandy bottom, bare feet and bare legs allow the water to swirl soothingly around the skin, evoking feelings of a Huck Finn-inspired respite from work and the simplest sort of well-being. But on most occasions, my wading is done like that of other anglers, legs clad in waders, feet encased in river-friendly shoes.
Like many other aspects of the outdoor life, wading isn’t quite as simple as it was fifty years ago, at least not in terms of the gear. Vintage photos from sporting magazines often portrayed a smartly attired gent in a plaid shirt, wicker creel on his hip, fishing rod bent with the weight of a trout, standing in knee-deep water in hip-waders, or hip-boots as they were sometimes called. Nowadays, there’s much more to wading. Hip waders are still around, but they’ve largely been replaced by chest-high varieties. Waist-high models have also gained popularity with some fly casters.
On angler’s feet it’s possible to find everything from traditional rubber boots that form the bottom of the wader to high-tech wading shoes sporting convertible soles that adapt from hiking on earthen access trails to wading on slippery, moss-covered rocks. Throw in some important environmental considerations to further muddle the choices in basic fishing gear, and what was once the simple act of wading may become a question as difficult to unsnarl as ten yards of monofilament tangled around the spool of a five year-old’s new fishing reel.
However, if you follow a methodical approach, it’s possible to select the right products for any type of angling that involves wading and use them correctly. Here are some things to consider.
1) Wader Height – Hip-boots and chest-high waders are the most familiar models to most anglers, but waist-high wading pants have recently become popular as well. For sheer economy, hip waders are tough to beat, but they have some disadvantages beyond their obvious inability to keep your toes dry in deep water. Most hip waders have built-in boots, rather than the stocking foot configuration which you slide into wading shoes, making them less comfortable for all-day angling. They stay up by means of straps that pass through the belt or belt-loops on your pants, another tactic that’s functional, but not terribly comfortable. Despite the lower cost, you don’t find many angling aficionados in hip waders.
Chest waders, on the other hand, offer excellent deep-wading capabilities. They’re also needed when fishing from a float-tube. Most are manufactured as “stocking foot” styles, meaning the bottoms of the waders essentially act like thick, waterproof stockings that you wear inside wading shoes. Choose wisely, and the right chest-waders will provide daylong comfort under a wide range of conditions.
From a safety standpoint, the most important accessory for chest waders is a wading belt. Typically supplied with the waders, the belt should be worn snugly around your waist at all times. The belt keeps the waders from filling with water if you take a dunking, at least temporarily, buying you enough time to get upright again and helping you avoid the exceedingly dangerous situation in which your waders fill with water and pull you under.
Choosing a particular chest wader is largely a matter of finding the model that best fits your body type and budget. While materials (we’ll get into those later) and the reputation of the manufacturer are the primary factors that drive price, anglers who spend many hours in their waders are advised to seriously consider comfort, an area in which some chest waders have seen marked improvement in recent years. For most people, chest waders are unflattering garments that are much too large around the chest, make your hips appear as huge as a hippo’s, and are cumbersome to take on and off.
Largely sold in just four sizes (S, M, L, XL), manufacturers attempt to accommodate the entire range of foot sizes and body types with minimal models. However, certain innovations are now making chest waders more comfortable and perhaps even stylish. Recently, my fishing partner, Lisa, acquired a pair of Redington waders designed specifically for women that boast a more flattering and form-fitting cut thanks to a new stretch Gore-tex fabric. They’re now her hands-down favorite.
On the men’s side, I recently tested a pair of Hodgman chest-waders that include a waterproof zipper in the front and shoulder straps that are completely removable. Both features are highly advantageous. The removable straps make it easier to roll down the waders to waist height when its warm, and the zipper makes them much easier to put on and off when nature calls. Beyond niceties like those mentioned above, the key to satisfaction with chest waders is to try them on before you buy them. The stocking-foot portion of a medium-size wader may differ significantly in size and cut between two manufacturers of similar quality. Likewise, inseam length and chest girth aren’t standard, so it’s difficult to anticipate how a particular model will feel without a trip to the fitting room.
I happen to love the third option, wading pants. High enough for water levels in modest streams, wading pants are also ideal when fishing from a canoe or drift boat. They’re not as bulky as chest waders and are much cooler in the summer. If I had to pick just one pair of waders, I’d still choose a chest-high model, but for hopping in and out of a watercraft or hiking distances along a trout stream, I’m much happier in wading pants.
2) Wader Materials – The materials that compose a pair of waders generally determine their price, weight, durability and comfort. Low-end waders made from PVC and rubber capture lots of sweat from the inside when it’s warm, and they’re not likely to last beyond a couple of seasons. However, their price is attractive for outfitting quickly growing kids.
Above PVC are waders composed of multiple layers of a breathable fabric. While they do allow moisture to escape, you’ll still work up a sweat inside if you employ them for hiking or wear them in a boat on a sunny afternoon in July. Differences in quality and durability are most often found in the number of fabric layers, and their type. For tough, long-lasting waders of this kind, look for models that have multiple layers of fabric, mostly notably those that reinforce the knees and seat — the areas that take the most abuse.
For cold-water applications, some anglers opt for waders insulated with neoprene, the kind favored by waterfowl hunters. These certainly find favor when float-tubing in early spring or late fall, but for winter fly fishing, I prefer a quality pair of lightweight, breathable waders under which I wear multiple insulating layers. Having fished with a number of guides on winter assignments all over the Rockies, I’ve observed that the pros use the same setup.
3) Wading Shoes – Wading shoes are simply the footgear worn over the stocking-foot portion of waders. Wading shoes vary in material, style and soles. Most are about the height of a mid-high hiking boot. Comfort varies considerably, but the adage “you get what you pay for” applies pretty well to how happy your feet will be in a pair of wading shoes. Similar to chest waders, a pre-purchase fitting session is good advice for choosing a wading shoe.
The most important part of a wading shoe is its sole, both for your own safety and that of other creatures. Day in and day out, felt-soled waders provide the best traction over a range of surfaces, from moss-covered boulders to smooth, football-sized stones. Felt soles with metal studs provide even more sure footing. However, felt soles are currently falling out of favor with many conservationists and anglers. The felt retains moisture for days after use, providing refuge for the spawn of various invasive aquatic organisms. Washing and thoroughly drying felt-soled waders helps to eliminate the potential to transfer nuisance species from one water body to another, but anglers often move between streams and lakes before the soles have a chance to dry completely. Recognizing the problem, New Zealand has banned felt-soled waders and shoes from its waters, a move that has also taken foot in Alaska and Vermont, and appears to a have the momentum to pass legislative muster in other states as well. Used exclusively on home water, felt soles are fine. The problems arise when moving from one area to another.
Increasingly, manufacturers are ramping up efforts to provide rubber-soled wading shoes that reduce the risk of transplanting invasive species while maintaining high levels of traction on slippery surfaces. One company has taken the sole part of the wading shoe equation even further. Korkers wading shoes are available with interchangeable soles that adapt to various conditions, including soles for hiking, rubber soles with and without metal cleats, and felt soles. While most anglers are somewhat reluctant to sacrifice the all-purpose traction of felt soles, environmental considerations warrant a search for new alternatives.
In truth, preventing the transfer of invasive aquatics like didymo (an algae), Eurasian milfoil (a plant), whirling disease (a parasite) and various exotic snails from one water body to another by wading anglers is more complex than simply opting out of felt soles. Many other areas on wading gear, such as the laces and padding on wading shoes and the neoprene material that forms the stocking foot on most waders, may also provide refuge for invasives. Whether you wade on soles of felt or rubber, any part of your wading gear that comes in contact with the water should be cleaned, a practice encouraged by Trout Unlimted and numerous other conservation groups.
‘Problem is, most don’t tell you specifically how, as various invasive species respond differently to cleaning treatments. For anglers in New Zealand, the country recommends one of several cleaning protocols to thwart didymo, a practice that Americans could easily adopt. Begin by scrubbing the surfaces of your wading shoes and waders with a solution of dishwashing detergent and warm water. Follow the washing with immersion in hot water that’s at least 115 degrees (F) for 40 minutes, or freeze them in a deep freeze overnight, or allow them to air dry completely at an air temperature that exceeds 75 degrees (F).
Much remains unknown about the role anglers play in spreading invasive species, but most scientists feel it is significant. Choosing wading gear that reduces the number of areas that can harbor aquatic nuisances and thoroughly cleaning them before fishing in a new body of water seem the most reasonable ways for wading anglers to reduce their impact. When purchasing a wading boot, look for the amount of absorbent, porous materials on the shoes and opt for models that have the least. For example, high-tech Boa Lacing Systems (available on some Korkers wading shoes) composed of a ratcheting cam that tightens steel cable laces doesn’t retain water like ordinary laces and dries more quickly, rendering them less hospitable to invasive aquatic organisms.
4) Wading Safety – In addition to wearing a wading belt and choosing wading shoes that provide good traction, there are several other things you can do to reduce your risk of falling or turning an ankle while wading. First of all, avoid exceptionally slippery locations or places where the current feels too strong. Follow your instincts. If you feel anxious while crossing a stream, back off and find a different route.
To enhance stability, consider a wading staff, essentially a walking stick for anglers. While wading, the staff provides an additional point of contact with the streambed so that when you move a foot, you have two points anchoring you to the ground rather than just one. When traversing swift water, it’s wise to link arms with a partner as four legs are less likely to be swept off balance than two. Wading in the winter or extremely cold water requires an extra measure of caution as a dunking in frigid conditions can quickly lead to hypothermia.
With the right gear and proper attention to safety, wading is one of the finest ways to experience fishing in picturesque streams. Walk an idyllic stretch of water in search of rising trout, and you’ll find more than just pretty scenery and vividly hued fish. The health benefits of relaxation and exercise are additional attractions for being on the wade.